United They Stand

March 15th, 2017
United They Stand

[Editor's Note: At 5:50 p.m. on March 16 and at 6:25 a.m. on March 17, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.]

What a difference a year makes!

One year ago, members of the Lakewood Township Committee appointed members to a new Master Plan Advisory Committee that included developers, lobbyists and political insiders.

The public was not welcome at their meetings.

During the advisory committee's second meeting last spring, Municipal Manager Thomas Henshaw threatened to call the police after a Lakewood journalist, posting online under the pseudonym of First Amendment Activist, began videotaping it.

In the face of public criticism, township officials began publicly noticing the advisory committee meetings on the Township web site. However, the meetings were noticed as executive sessions, which are not open to the public.

This editor/reporter for NJ News & Views disregarded the posted executive session notice and entered the advisory committee's upstairs meeting room last summer, as her colleague, The First Amendment Activist, videotaped the event with his smart phone camera.

This editor/reporter asked advisory committee members if they were discussing legal issues, and if they were either filing suit or defending against litigation.

Master Plan Advisory Committee Chairman Justin Flancbaum, a Lakewood developer who also serves as director of the Lakewood Township Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), said no.

This editor/reporter asked Flancbaum if the advisory committee had a budget to hire employees and was using the meeting to discuss personnel issues.

Flancbaum said no.

This editor/reporter asked why members of the advisory committee were meeting in executive session if they were not discussing any of the items that state law, under the Open Public Meetings Act, classifies as grounds to meet in executive session.

Flancbaum said that he thought members would be more comfortable in a more casual environment, similar to the one in which he conducted business as a private citizen.

He is not, and neither are other members of the government panel to which the local governing body appointed them.

This editor/reporter proposed to Flancbaum and other advisory committee members that instead of meeting in closed session, they share their positive ideas for alleviating quality of life issues impacting citizens living and working in the state's fastest growing municipality.

They wanted answers then, and late last month, when Flancbaum convened a Master Plan Advisory Subcommittee meeting on density in the municipal building auditorium.

This time, members actively sought public input.

They got an earful.

Flancbaum opened the February 28, 2017 meeting by informing the audience that Lakewood had a Smart Growth Plan to address density issues.

The audience laughed.

"Call it what you want, but that's the name of it," Flancbaum responded.

He said he and his advisory subcommittee wanted to hear from each and every one in the audience.

Prior to opening the public forum, Planner Martin Truscott made a presentation of the township's Smart Growth Plan.

Originally adopted in 2009, Truscott said that the township's Smart Growth Plan (SGP) addressed land use, circulation, development and all other uses of the town. He said that the SGP designated compact centers for future development, thereby preserving other areas.

Not necessarily.

Last year, NJ News & Views reported that areas of the Oak Street Core designated for affordable housing or for preservation as passive or active recreational space were instead being developed for schools, without the SGP being updated to reflect the change in use.

According to the Cedarbridge Town Center of the SGP, the township's corporate park includes a residential housing component.

To developers, it is a promise yet to be fulfilled.

Schools are a permitted use in the industrial park, and for years, the Lakewood Zoning Board of Adjustment granted variances for residential housing that was not permitted there.

Development of more residential housing throughout Lakewood has brought more tax-exempt schools and houses of worship opening for business, which in turn mean less tax revenue with a greater demand for municipal taxpayer-supported public services.

In addition, more school buses are jockeying for position on township, county and state roadways with more commercial trucks and vehicles, endangering Lakewood's growing population of school children and pedestrians, while congesting the municipality's infrastructure.

That mix did not sit well with members of the audience, who vented their anger on advisory committee members, many of whom were employees of influential government lobbyists.

Shloimy Klein asked if any members of the subcommittee took money from developers to represent their interests over those of the public.

"This is called legal bribery!" he said.

Fairways resident Carol Suckno spoke next.

"I'm here as a senior," she said. "There are a million other things I could do this evening, (but I'm here because it's important)."

She said that seniors had very little say in the town, even though their tax dollars supported it.

Suckno said she couldn't park at the town's downtown library branch because of a lack of parking there. She also said that because there was always an emergency in town, ambulances, as well as school buses, added to the traffic congestion on narrow township roads.

"There's so much wrong here," she said. "Why don't you (first) improve what's wrong?"

William Hobday, a past president and current board member of The Fairways at Lake Ridge Home Owners Association, also spoke.

Hobday said there was inadequate infrastructure and inadequate roadways. He indicated that the township kept compounding those deficiencies through overdevelopment that added to Lakewood's density.

"We understand that Lakewood is a destination," Hobday said. "It's a wonderful town, (but) perhaps we need a moratorium (on building) because we're flat out of resources."

Hobday noted that the neighboring golf course was recently sold to developers.

"There's not enough recreation in town," he said. "Let's fix the infrastructure first."

After Hobday, another Fairways resident spoke.

He said his name was Howard Suckno, otherwise known as Carol's husband.

Suckno said he was a former resident of Livingston.

"When I saw an ad for The Fairways in the Sunday paper, I remembered the Lakewood of my youth," he said. "We vacationed in Lakewood in the summer of '42. My brother vacationed with us here, before shipping out. No one would take a penny from him (while) he was in uniform. That was the Lakewood of those days."

Fond memories and a yearning to return to them by moving to the township of his youth motivated the Sucknos to buy a home in The Fairways, a gated, age-restricted community. The Fairways is adjacent to Eagle Ridge Golf Course and across the street on Massachusetts Avenue from The Enclave, another gated adult community built by the same developer.

Upon taking title to their Lakewood home, the Sucknos quickly realized they had made a mistake in moving there.

"We didn't research it before moving here 15 years ago," Howard Suckno said. 'The assaults on our communities have been cruel. Every assurance has been a lie. Senator Singer told us he represented everyone in Lakewood. He told me he would call me when there was a positive story in the media. I'm still waiting for his call."

Senator Robert Singer represents the 30th Legislative District, which includes Lakewood.

According to county land and tax records, on October 23, 2015, Singer sold his Lakewood home, located on 1.91 acres in the R-40 zone, for $925,000. The Singer home was assessed at $548,700.

The buyer was Shimon Grinberger of Newport Estate LLC, located at 956 Park Avenue in Lakewood.

On August 1, 2016, the Lakewood Zoning Board of Adjustment heard Grinberger's birfurcated application for a density (D) variance to develop up to 31 future residential lots on a 12-acre site at Newport and Bellevue Avenues in the R-40 zone, in accordance with the requirements of the R-12 zone.

The R-40 zone permits a conforming use of one home per 40,000-square-foot lot, while the R-12 zone permits a conforming use of one home per 12,000-square-foot lot.

Planner/Engineer Brian Flannery testified on behalf of Grinberger's application.

Flannery said that Lakewood was working on an update to its' Master Plan and that 12,000-square-foot lots made sense, given the existing character of the neighborhood. He also said that if the zoning board didn't vote favorably on the application, schools, which were a permitted use, would be built there instead.

Flannery said during his testimony that "nobody is going to build on 40,000-square-foot lots."

He also said that the housing demand in Lakewood had not yet been met, and that the only way to encourage residential development would be on smaller lots.

During the public forum, Abraham Gobioff of 830 Wenstrom Avenue, who was represented by attorney Ron Gasiorowski, described the area as tranquil and serene and rural. He said the neighborhood consisted of all large lots and that there was only one way in and one way out on the 25-foot-wide access road, which had no shoulder.

"People are building large homes with two basement apartment rentals," Gobioff told zoners.

He said the applicant was asking to build 32 homes, in which as many as 64 families would live on a small site located in the rural area.

"This will cause a tremendous hardship for families living there now," he said.

Gobioff implored the zoning board not approve the application.

His pleas and those of other objectors fell on deaf ears.

"More houses are going to go in and schools will be built (there)," Flannery said.

Zoning board member Avrohom Naftali said that Lakewood did need single family homes.

"Something has to be built here," he said.

Zoning board Chairman Abe Halberstam agreed that R-12 development did not fit the area, but said that 40,000-square-foot homes "is not going to happen" either.

Zoner Obed Gonzalez noted that there were already two schools that had opened on Chestnut Street, and another in a double trailer.

Gonzalez said that the neighborhood where he lives is undergoing a similar change in development.

"I would rather have residential housing than schools," Gonzalez said.

Flannery offered to modify his client's development proposal, downsizing the density from the R-12 zone to the R-15 zone, which would permit one home per 15,000-square-foot lot.

Naftali motioned to approve Grinberger's modified development proposal, which Gozalez seconded.

Halberstam, Naftali and Gonzalez voted to approve the motion, joined by zoning board members Meir Gelley and Moshe Ingber.

Zoners Lee Mund and Hal Halvorsen voted to deny it.

Zoning board member Moshe Lankry reportedly was not present during the August 1, 2016 application hearing and vote.

He was present as a member of the Master Plan advisory subcommittee meeting at its' February 28, 2017 meeting.

Residents that spoke during the meeting held the zoning board on which Lankry sits accountable for its' actions in approving proposals for dense development.

Lakewood residents not only stand to lose the value of their investment in their homes through approval of conforming and non-conforming development proposals, but also through public opinion of the town in which they live.

During the advisory committee meeting's public forum, Fairways resident Howard Suckno indicated that for him, the last straw was a recent article published in NJ Monthly, a consumer magazine, which focused on the township's housing market sale practices.

According to their comments, both in public and in private with a reporter for NJ News & Views, the Sucknos considered the article a black eye for Lakewood.

Three years ago, NJ Monthly asked this editor/reporter of NJ News & Views to interview for an editorial position in the company's Morristown office. Located in an office building next to a commercial parking lot, visitors had to buzz the office to announce themselves before they were permitted entry into the secured building.

Upon entry, this editor/reporter met with a senior member of the magazine's editorial staff. Although the meeting had been scheduled weeks earlier, he said he had just reviewed her blog before the interview.

"I could barely read it," he said.

He should have tried harder to do so.

Lakewood is not just a statistic. It is a township of living, breathing human beings. Residents care deeply about their quality of life in all of Lakewood's diverse communities.

These days, they also increasingly care about each other.

They are no longer separated by their differences; they are united by the common goal to make their township work for everyone, not just a few.

"We're arm-in-arm with Take Back Lakewood," Hobday said after returning to the speaker's podium.

Since last year, Take Back Lakewood has lived up to its' name. Members have live-streamed development board meetings, demanded during public forums that members deny applications that were unacceptable to their quality of life, and lobbied local government for public policy changes that benefited all residents, not just special interests.

Eleven years ago, that also was the founding mission of NJ News & Views.

On March 16, 2006, this editor/reporter started a blog on an AOL Hometown page. The goal of the blog was to identify public policy issues through investigative journalism and to provide solutions through editorial commentary.

Over a decade later, those efforts have borne fruit.

Noreen Gill, long an advocate for traffic safety, no longer speaks as just a resident of Lakewood. She is now a public official in a position of authority to do something about the issue.

Prior to adjournment, her fellow members on the advisory committee gave her the floor - literally.

At the start of the meeting, Gill placed numerous posters she had made in front of the dais on which she sat as a member. The posters identified upcoming development applications, scheduled to be heard by the Lakewood Planning Board and the Lakewood Zoning Board of Adjustment, which would increase the township's density if approved.

"Traffic is not the problem," she told the audience, "Density is the problem."

Gill said she had attended that night's meeting with an open mind.

"I've already had three heart attacks," she said. "I said, 'God, give me the strength to attend this meeting.' I'm not against schools, I'm not against shuls. I am against density."

She said, "We all want to live in this town, we all want to stay in this town, (but) people are moving out of Lakewood. Why?"

A woman seated in the audience answered her question.

"Density!" she said from her seat.

Gill said that developers put density where it shouldn't be.

"I'm up here because I want to straighten things out," Gill said.

The audience applauded her.

In a March 15, 2017 telephone interview, Singer, who said he still lives in Lakewood, responded to the Sucknos' concerns regarding the NJ Monthly magazine article about the municipality he represents as state senator.

Singer said that the magazine had the right to its' opinion. However, he said he did not share it.

"Lakewood has growing pains, but that doesn't mean it's not a great place to live," he said.